Evangelical leaders say they are bewildered and stunned by the Rev. Rick Warren's apparent turnaround on gay marriage after the famous California pastor said earlier this week that he was not a proponent of California's Proposition 8.
Mr. Warren told CNN's Larry King on Monday that he "never once even gave an endorsement" of the proposition, which said marriage in the state could only involve one man and one woman. The measure won at the polls last November by a close margin, in effect negating an earlier California Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriages.
Proponents of the proposition had gathered from earlier comments that Mr. Warren stood with them on the issue, and they reacted vigorously to his CNN interview.
"I was extremely troubled by the way he appeared to be so anxious to distance himself from the same-sex issue and to make clear he was not an 'activist' and that he'd only addressed the issue in a very minor way," said the Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, said his denial is "absolutely baffling."
"Whether he supports Proposition 8 now, after the fact, is overshadowed by the bizarre claim that he did not say what the evidence so clearly proves he said."
What Mr. Warren said he did do was send out a video to his 22,000-member church explaining his position the week before Proposition 8 went before state voters on Nov. 4.
"Now let me say this really clearly: We support Proposition 8," he said on the video, "and if you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8. I never support a candidate, but on moral issues, I come out very clear."
In his conversation with Mr. King, Mr. Warren said, "All of a sudden out of it, [opponents] made me something that I really wasn't. And I actually — there were a number of things that were put out. I wrote to all my gay friends — the leaders that I knew — and actually apologized to them. That never got out."
Named in 2005 by Time magazine as one of America's top 25 evangelicals and dubbed by some as "the next Billy Graham," Mr. Warren soared to nationwide prominence last August when he hosted a TV debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.
He was placed even more in the spotlight when newly elected President Obama announced that Mr. Warren would deliver the opening prayer at his inauguration. Gay activists condemned the selection chiefly because of the pastor's apparent support of Proposition 8.
At the time, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization, cited Mr. Warren's opposition to gay marriage as a sign of intolerance.
"We feel a deep level of disrespect when one of the architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination," the group said in a letter to Obama, asking him to reconsider.
Christianity Today magazine on April 7 pressed Mr. Warren about whether his CNN remarks contradicted the video sent to his congregration.
"It was a pastor talking to his own people," he replied. "I've never said anything about it since. I don't know how you can take one video newsletter to your own church and turn that into — all of a sudden I'm the poster boy for anti-gay marriage."
Saddleback Church, where Mr. Warren is pastor, released a clarification on April 9 to the evangelical-oriented CBN.com, saying the pastor's remarks on CNN were not in reference to the video but "to not participating in the official two-year organized advocacy effort specific to the ballot initiative in that state."
Still, evangelicals point to a bigger issue brought about by Mr. Warren.
"This is a major distraction in this battle for the culture we are experiencing," said Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition of 5,000 black and Hispanic evangelical leaders. "I really respect Pastor Warren, but his stance will hurt the evangelical church. He is being politically correct instead of biblically courageous."